Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Today I am introducing the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015. The Bill sets out the wording of the thirty-fourth amendment that will be put to the people in a referendum on 22 May 2015. The referendum will be on the question of marriage equality. The people will have the opportunity in the referendum to consider whether the Constitution should be amended so as to allow couples to marry without distinction as to their sex. The referendum is exclusively about civil marriage and the consequences that flow from civil marriage for the two persons choosing to get married to one another.
The Government agreed on 5 November 2013 that a referendum should be held in the first half of 2015 on the question of enabling same-sex couples to marry. The Government's decision was in response to the report of the Convention on the Constitution. The convention's third report, Amending the Constitution to Provide for Same-sex Marriage, issued in June 2013, recommended that a change be made to the Constitution to provide for same-sex marriage. As Deputies will be aware, the convention sought submissions from interested parties and received 1,077 submissions from interest groups, church organisations and private individuals. It held a plenary debate on this question on 13 and 14 April 2013. The outcome of its deliberations was that a strong majority of its members recommended that provision be made for same-sex marriage.
The Government noted the third report of the Convention on the Constitution when taking its decision to hold a referendum on this issue. It also noted the high level of engagement of the members in the process and the strong interest of civil society in this issue, as reflected in the large number of submissions, and the high level of support within the convention for the recommendation to change the Constitution to enable same-sex couples to marry.
The Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015 was published on 21 January 2015, following Government agreement on the proposed wording that day. The Government has since agreed, on 3 March 2015, the general scheme of the marriage Bill 2015, which sets out the legislative changes that will be undertaken if the referendum is passed by the people.
The Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015 provides that, if the referendum is passed, a new section would be inserted after section 3 of Article 41 of the Constitution. If approved by the people, this section, which would be Article 41.4, would contain the following wording: "Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex." No other amendments would arise in respect of Article 41. The wording is intended to give a right to marry to couples without distinction as to their sex. If the wording is approved by the people, there would be a corresponding obligation and requirement on the State to respect and vindicate that right in its legislation. Therefore, it would not be open to the State to maintain in being legislation which prohibits the marriage of same-sex couples.
I propose to outline the rationale behind the wording proposed for the thirty-fourth amendment. The first element, "Marriage may be contracted", draws on the precedent of Article 41, which recognises marriage as an institution. The proposed wording seeks to convey that marriage is an institution which two persons may enter. The decision to use the term "contracted" was taken for the following reasons. It is the term already used in Article 41.3 in respect of marriage. Furthermore, the term confirms that what is at issue is civil marriage, which is a contract between two persons in the eyes of the State.
The phrase "in accordance with law" has been included in the proposed wording to confirm that marriage would continue, as at present, to be regulated by statute and common law. The manner in which marriage ceremonies are registered, for instance, would be regulated by statute.
The phrase "without distinction as to their sex" reflects language already used in Article 16 of the Constitution. Articles 16.1 and 16.2 use the phrase "without distinction of sex" with regard to the eligibility of citizens for membership of the Dáil and the right of every citizen to vote for members of Dáil Éireann. The wording proposed for the thirty-fourth amendment builds on the language of that precedent to provide for a couple, regardless of their sex, to be eligible to marry.
There has been some commentary on the decision to use the term "sex" in the wording of the proposed amendment. The reason it has been used is that it is the term already used in the Constitution. Furthermore, the barriers which prevent persons from marrying under Irish law are impediments relating to a person's sex rather than a person's gender.
If the referendum is passed by the people, the right to marriage equality will be enshrined in the Constitution and Ireland will advance along the path to marriage equality which has already been taken by many countries. An increasing number of countries are giving same-sex couples the right to marry. The Netherlands was the first country to pass a law in 2001 enabling same-sex couples to marry.
Since then, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Finland, England, Wales and Scotland have all given same-sex couples the right to marry. It is possible for same-sex couples to marry in 37 US states. The US Supreme Court is currently considering whether that right should be extended throughout all US states. Only last week, the Slovenian Parliament approved a law in favour of marriage equality. More and more countries of the world are recognising that couples should have the right to marry one another regardless of their sexual orientation.
At issue is the question of who should have the right to marry. The referendum would not, if passed, redefine marriage. Marriage would not change if same-sex couples were given the right to marry. Couples would continue to marry in exactly the same way and according to the same conditions as at present. The manner in which marriages are registered would continue to be regulated by law. The effects of marriage on property, taxation and succession would be unchanged. The people will have to decide on a simple question: whether marriage is open to all couples who wish to enter it.
Marriage is an institution that we hold dear in Ireland. It is enshrined in our Constitution as an institution that the State is pledged to guard with special care. According to census 2011, there were 1,708,604 persons married in Ireland, representing an increase of 143,588 since 2006. EUROSTAT statistics for 2012 confirm that Ireland has the lowest divorce rate in the EU at 0.6 per 1,000 of the population. If marriage is so important to us and if it is the means by which we make a profound commitment to the people that we love, why should it be for some and not others? What right do we have to say to some couples that they cannot participate in an institution that is the bedrock for so many people? What right do we have to say to taxpayers, neighbours and citizens that they can live among us but cannot share in all that many hold dear? I believe if we value marriage as significantly as we do, then we should be ready to share it with all who wish to avail of it. In fact, it is a tribute to the importance of marriage as the expression of a couple's commitment to one another that same-sex couples wish to be able to marry too. Enabling same-sex couples to marry reflects the solidity of the institution of marriage.
One myth often put forward in the debate on marriage equality is that the concept of marriage is eternal and unchanging. However, history shows us that the legal consequences of marriage have changed repeatedly over the centuries. For example, let us reflect on what marriage meant for women until the 19th century. Marriage in the past was often a relationship of inequality. We expect nowadays that our marriages are founded on equality. However, modern-day marriage is itself the product of a long journey to equality. The journey to equality follows a familiar path. Some are often outraged that others should seek equality. Some fight firmly to defend the status quo. It is striking that when equality is granted, it becomes inconceivable in the society that it was ever resisted. Some 43 years ago the marriage bar was still in place, preventing married women in many areas of the public sector from remaining in employment. It was as late as 1973 when the marriage bar was lifted.
I wish to make one thing clear: it is my belief that enabling same-sex couples to get married would not affect the marriages of heterosexual couples. They would continue to get married in the same way as currently. Furthermore, the referendum would not change in any way the rights of religious denominations to decide who should get married in their denominations. There are constitutional guarantees that protect the rights of religious denominations. Article 44 of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion. Article 44.5 enshrines the right of every religious denomination to manage its own affairs.
The Government has approved the general scheme of the marriage Bill 2015. The general scheme outlines the legislative changes that are planned by the Government to give effect to the right to marriage equality anticipated in the constitutional amendment. I emphasise that the general scheme is conditional on the decision of the electorate on the referendum. Yesterday, I circulated Members of both Houses with the draft scheme of a marriage Bill which would be introduced by the Government if the referendum is passed by the people.
The Irish wording of the amendment has been subject to some comment. The Oireachtas translation service is confident that these concerns are unfounded and that the wording, as originally published, clearly allows opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples to marry. However, the Government considers it important that the electorate should have absolute confidence in the wording proposed for the amendment in English and Irish. As a result, the Government has decided to propose a more literal translation of the English wording. I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage in this regard. The amendment will propose the following wording for the amendment in Irish: Féadfaidh beirt, gan beann ar a ngnéas, conradh pósta a dhéanamh de réir dlí. This wording can be essentially translated into English as: Two persons, regardless of their sex, can contract a marriage in accordance with law.
Today is a historic day. Today, the Oireachtas begins the process of debating the legislation that will prepare for the referendum. The people are getting the opportunity to determine a simple question: do we give a right to marriage equality to all couples who wish to marry in our society? Do we say that one couple's love is as valid as another's? Do we say that couples wishing to make a lifelong commitment to one another should have the right to constitutional protection? I am honoured to introduce this referendum Bill to the House.